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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 17. How The Prince Became A Man
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 17. How The Prince Became A Man Post by :Jim_Hutton Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1797

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 17. How The Prince Became A Man

CHAPTER XVII. HOW THE PRINCE BECAME A MAN

Gordon found his erstwhile ward greatly improved by her recent life. She was brown, vigorous, healthy; her physical charms quickened his pulses.

"You must have a very good reason for coming to see me," she began. "I don't flatter myself that it is from affection."

"There you wrong me," he assured her, with the warm earnestness he so easily assumed. "I have always regarded you as a daughter."

"I have no faith in you."

"Exactly, and the knowledge distresses me. You and Gloria were a large part of my life; I can't bear to lose you. I hope--and I believe--that her regard for me has changed no more than mine for her. It remains for me to regain yours."

"That is impossible. You had the chance--"

"My dear, you can't know my reasons for acting as I did at Omar. But those reasons no longer exist."

"Just what--do you mean by that?" stammered Natalie.

"I mean what I say. I'm ready to marry your mother."

"When?"

"At once. You shall plead my cause for me. You shall add your voice to mine--"

"That isn't necessary. You know mother is only waiting for you. It means so much to her that she couldn't refuse."

"Doesn't it mean anything to you?"

Natalie nodded. "It means more to me than to any one else, perhaps. I have been carrying a great burden, almost more than I can bear. Sometimes I've wished I were a man--for just long enough to make you pay. Oh yes," she continued, as he started to protest. "Don't let us begin this new life with any false conceptions; you may as well know that I shall always hate you. We shall see very little of each other."

"Nonsense! I can't let you feel like that. I sha'n't rest until I win back your love and confidence."

She eyed him searchingly for a moment, then opened her lips to speak, but closed them.

"Well?" he prompted her. "Let us be frank with each other."

"I'm merely wondering how greatly your decision has been influenced by the storm and the fight at the railroad crossing. I understand how you feel toward Mr. O'Neil, and I know that he means to crush you."

"Oh!" Gordon's face lighted.

"Yes! He has never said so, but I can feel it. I wonder if you have snatched us up in your extremity as a defense."

"Ridiculous! Your suspicions are insulting. I have nothing to fear from him, for he is broken, his credit is gone, he is in desperate straits."

"Are you in any better condition? How long can you fool your people with that pretense of a mine?"

Gordon flushed, but affected scorn. "So! Have you and Gloria begun to balance my wealth against my love? If so--"

"You know she would marry you if you were penniless."

"I hope so--and, indeed, I can't believe her mercenary. Well, I shall say good-by to Kyak, without idle regret, and we three shall return to Hope, where I can attack my problems with fresh courage. I can well afford my loss here, if by doing so I gain the woman of my desires."

"You want me to go with you?"

"Of course. You can't stay in Omar, knowing what you do about O'Neil. Remember, I shall be in the position of a father to you."

"Very well. It is the least I can do. Miss Appleton and I are returning to Omar in a few days. Will you go with us?"

"I shall be delighted, my dear." He smiled upon her in his most fatherly fashion, but she was far from feeling the assurance he meant to convey.

The eighteen-hour train from Chicago bore Murray O'Neil into New York on time, and he hastened directly to the Holland House, where the clerk greeted him as if he had run in from Yonkers instead of from the wilderness of the far northwest. His arrival was always the forerunner of great prosperity for the bell-boys, and there was the customary struggle for his baggage.

An hour later, having bathed and changed his linen, he was whizzing toward lower Broadway, with the roar of the Subway in his ears. New York looked very good to O'Neil, for this time he came not as a suppliant, but as a conqueror, and a deep contentment rested in his heart. More than once during the last two years he had made this flying trip across an ocean and a continent, but heretofore he had been burdened with worries and responsibilities. Always he had needed to gather his wits for some supreme effort; always there had been the urgent necessity of raising money. As the S. R. & N. had grown his obligations had increased; and, while he had never returned empty-handed, no one but he knew at what cost of time and strength he had succeeded in financing his venture. Invariably he had left New York mentally and physically exhausted, and his days in the open had barely served to replenish his store of nervous energy for the next campaign.

As he looked back upon it all he was amazed at his daring in attempting to finance a railroad out of his own pocket. But he had won, and the Trust had met with a sharp reverse in attempting to beat him at his own game. He held the winning card, and he looked out upon the world through eyes which were strained and weary, but complacent.

Mr. Herman Heidlemann was expecting him.

"You have the most confident way of arranging appointments from the other side of the world," he began, as O'Neil entered his office. "Steamships and railroads appear to be your obedient servants."

"Not always. I find railroads very troublesome at times."

"Well, you're on time to the minute," said Heidlemann. "Now tell me about Kyak. Trevor cables that you were there during the storm which ruined us." The head of the copper syndicate did not look like a man facing ruin; in fact, he seemed more curious to hear of the physical phenomena of that hurricane than of its effect upon his fortunes.

"Kyak was a great mistake," he admitted, when O'Neil had given him the particulars he asked for. "We're all agreed on that point. Some of our associates feel that the whole Alaskan enterprise has been a mistake--mines and all."

"Your mines are as good as they ever were, but Kyak is a long way from Wall Street, and you relied too much upon other people's judgment."

"We have to rely upon our experts."

"Of course. But that country must have a railroad."

"Must?" Heidlemann lifted his brows. "It has done very well without one so far. Our friends call us crazy for trying to build one, and our enemies call us thieves."

"You can't afford to give up."

"No. There's an element of pride in the matter, and I really believe the country does need transportation."

"You can't understand how badly it needs it."

"Yet it's a heavy load to carry," said Heidlemann, with conviction, "for a road will lose money for many years. We were willing to wait until the agriculture and the mining developed, even though the profit came only to our children; but--we have been misunderstood, abused by the press and the public. Even Congress is down on us. However, I suppose you came to tell me once more that Omar is the gateway and that we need it."

O'Neil smiled. "That's hardly necessary now, is it? I own every inch of water-front at that point, and there's no other harbor. My track will be laid to the glaciers by the time snow flies."

"Trevor reports that a bridge is possible, although expensive."

"It will cost two million dollars."

"I don't see how it can be built to withstand the ice."

"I'll guarantee to build it so it will hold."

"What is your proposition?" asked Heidlemann.

"I'll sell the S.R.&N. for five million dollars and contract to complete the road within two years on a ten-per-cent commission."

"It has cost you about three million dollars, I believe. That would leave you a handsome profit."

"One million for me, one million for my associates."

"What will the remaining hundred miles cost?"

"About ten millions. That will give me another million profit as contractor. My force and equipment is on the ground. I can save you money and a year's time."

Mr. Heidlemann drummed upon the top of his desk for a moment.

"You're a high-priced man, O'Neil," he said, finally.

"You've had experience with the other kind."

"Counting the money we've already sunk, the road would stand us about twenty million dollars completed."

"It will cost thirty to build from Cortez, and take two years longer."

Mr. Heidlemann seemed to consider this for a moment. "We've had this matter before us almost constantly since the report of the storm," he said, at length, "and after deliberation our directors have voted to do nothing just yet."

O'Neil opened his eyes in amazement.

"I don't understand."

"It's this way. Our engineers first recommended Cortez as a starting-point, and we spent a fortune there. Then you attacked the other route, and we sent Trevor up to find if you were right and we were wrong. He recommended the Salmon River valley, and told us he could build a breakwater at Kyak. You know the result. We relied upon him, for he seemed to be the best man in the country, but as a matter of precaution we later sent other engineers. Their reports came in not three months ago, and, while all seemed confident that the breakwater could be built, none of them were certain about the bridge. One, in fact, condemned it absolutely. Now on the heels of their statements comes the news that the very work they united in declaring feasible has been undone. Naturally, we don't know where we are or whom to believe."

"They simply didn't know the conditions at Kyak," argued O'Neil, "and they evidently haven't studied the bridge as I have. But you'll have to go at the breakwater again or build in from Cortez or give up."

"No, we have decided to mark time until that crossing is proved feasible. Understand, I voice the sentiment of the majority."

"If I build that bridge you may find it more difficult to buy me out," said O'Neil, quietly.

"We'll have to take our medicine," Mr. Heidlemann replied, without heat. "We cannot afford another mistake."

"This is definite?"

"Oh, absolutely! We're going slow for a time."

A blow in the face could not have affected O'Neil more disagreeably than this statement. Fortune had seemed within his grasp when he entered the room; now ruin was more imminent than it had ever been before. The ground seemed to be slipping from beneath his feet; he discovered that he was dizzy. He felt himself utterly incapable of raising the two million dollars necessary to carry his road to a point where the Trust would consider a purchase, yet to fail meant the loss of all he had put in. He knew also that these men would never recede from a position once taken.

"Hasn't this public clamor had something to do with your determination?" he asked.

"A great deal. We had the best intentions when we started--we still have--but it's time to let the general sentiment cool. We thought we were doing a fine thing for the country in opening Alaska, but it seems we're regarded as thieves and grafters. One gets tired of abuse after a while."

"Will you take an option on the S. R. can't help you, O'Neil, but rest assured we won't do anything to hinder you. You have treated us fairly; we will reciprocate. Once you have built your bridge we can discuss a purchase and the abandonment of our original enterprise, but meanwhile we must proceed cautiously. It is unfortunate for us all."

"Especially for me."

"You need money badly, don't you?"

"I'm worse than broke," O'Neil admitted.

"I'd really be sorry to take over the wreck of your enterprise," Heidlemann said, earnestly, "for you have made a good fight, and your ideas were better than ours. I'd much prefer to pay your price than to profit by your misfortune. Needless to say we don't feel that way about Gordon."

"There would be no uncertainty about the bridge if I had the money. With your means I could build a road to the moon, and double-track it."

Although Murray felt that further effort was useless, he continued to argue the matter from various angles, hoping against hope to sway Heidlemann's decision. But he gave up at last. Out in the marble hall which led to the elevators he discovered that all his vigor of an hour ago had passed. The spring was out of his limbs; he walked slowly, like an old man. A glimpse of his image in the mirrors of the car as he shot downward showed him a face grave and haggard. The crowds jostled him, but he was hardly conscious of them. The knowledge that his hardest fight was yet to come filled him with sickening apprehension. He was like a runner who toes the mark for a final heat knowing himself to be upon the verge of collapse.

The magnitude of the deal narrowed his field of operations alarmingly, and he had already learned what a serious effect upon capital the agitation about Alaska had produced. More than once he had found men who were willing to invest but feared the effect of public sentiment. Popular magazines, newspapers like The Review, and writers like Eliza Appleton had been largely to blame for the wrong. They had misunderstood the problem and misinterpreted the spirit of commercial progress. But, strangely enough, he felt no bitterness at thought of Eliza. On the contrary, his heart softened in a sort of friendly yearning for her company. He would have liked to talk the matter over with her.

Looking the situation squarely in the face, he realized that he must face a crash or raise two million dollars within the next month. That meant seventy thousand dollars a day. It was a man- sized task.

He bought himself a cigar at the corner, hailed a taxicab, and was driven all the way up town to the Holland House. Once there, he established himself in that corner of the men's cafe which he always frequented.

The waiter who served him lingered to say:

"It's good to see you back in your 'office' again. You've been a long time away, sir."

O'Neil smiled as he left a silver dollar on the tray.

"It's good to be back, Joe," he said. "This time I may not leave."

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